We begin a new series today, running through to the end of July entitled ‘Songs of Life’. If you go to the website and scroll through the banner pictures you will find one with that title and then click on it and it will give you the psalms we are covering.
The psalms – described as the Hebrew song book and prayer book – have been completely adopted by us as Christians, although we read them in the light of Jesus Christ and without the sense of history with which Jews would read them. We tend to mine them for worship songs and use the nice bits as readings for our worship services, forgetting that there is as much lament, despair and ranting as there is praise and worship. We do tend to cherry pick, because there are some verses that don’t seem appropriate for worship
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
Those who want to kill me will be destroyed;
they will go down to the depths of the earth.
10 They will be given over to the sword
and become food for jackals.
It is possible to group the psalms into three broad categories: psalms of orientation that focus on everything being in its right place and in right relationship to God. Psalms of disorientation when this is not the case and there is confusion and despair and questioning. Psalms of re-orientation as the community refocusses, with a different understanding and relationship with God. We will travel this path from worship and praise to lament, despair and refuge; coming back that re-focussing on God the author and giver of life.
What is clear about the psalms is that they are not expressions of faith in a bubble; they aren’t expressions of faith that deny all that is going on around. They are expressions of faith in the God who is there in the midst of the mess and the turmoil, as well as the celebration and praise. They are expressions of faith in the God who brings and will bring order out of chaos; justice where there is injustice; healing where there is pain and suffering. When you consider that these are songs that have been born in circumstances of real life; been born in suffering and pain; have been turned to by the Jewish community to express what they have experienced down through the centuries they must have something to say to us and be able to speak into our circumstances.
We begin our dip into these ancient songs with Psalm 8, a psalm of orientation. It is a psalm I have used standing on hill tops, when out walking in the countryside and out cycling on Hoo Peninsula. It is a psalm we might use when all is right with our world and we feel contented and happy with life and feel the blessing of God. There is that feeling about it: the world is in order with God as the focus, and causing expressions of wonder, worship and adulation.
The psalm begins and ends with God, which to us as believers is only right, because all of creation has its beginning in God and when all things are renewed it will be at God’s instigation. In the adulation of David, he realises that the glory he experienced in creation would have been visible to all across the world and should be enough to silence those who would deny the existence of God. As he looked at the night sky, he is just over-awed by the majesty of God in the universe. I think one of the reasons why I like this psalm is because I remember gazing up at the night sky as I walked down the street from taking Wendy home in the early days of our relationship and trying to stare as far as possible and then wondering how great God must be to have brought all this into being. ‘You have set your glory above the heavens.’
Not surprisingly, when he reflected on the majesty of God in the heavens, he reflected on humankind’s insignificance in the light of this glory. The response of western society is to look at the heavens and see them as a place to conquer – goodness knows why since we haven’t resolved all the issues of earth without exporting them to the heavens. Western society tends not to think how insignificant we are, but says we are gods, we are rulers of the universe, making the same mistakes we have made in conquering different places in the world. Western society looks at the heavens and says, ‘What an incredible accident.’ David would have found that incomprehensible. How could anyone say that it is all an accident?
David’s attention then turns to the position of responsibility given to humankind over the planet to which we have been born. We have been given a position that is only just short of that of the heavenly beings and in doing so crowned us with glory and honour. But that doesn’t come without responsibility. Whether or not you are a fan of the royal family, what can be said about George VI, the Queen, Prince Charles and Prince William is that they recognise the glory and honour they have been born into comes with responsibility. The responsibility given to humankind is to be ruler over creation. How we have interpreted that has been to dominate creation and use it, rather than be stewards of what God has brought into being. The reports we have been having concerning the state of the planet – the pollution of plastic, melting of ice caps, and the possible loss of a million species – points to the fact that we have not been good stewards over the creation entrusted to us. We have taken the words ‘subdue’ and ‘rule’ to mean exploit and dominate, without considering or ignoring the consequences. As a western consumer, I am as guilty as anyone else. I also need to play my part in conserving and being a good steward of the resources I use.
There are other questions this psalm raises. It seems to be a song of the economically and socially secure. God is in heaven and all is right with the world. It sounds like David was in a good place when writing this psalm – which wasn’t always the case. It is harder to sing this song when at every turn you are oppressed and everything just seems to be against you. This is expressed by Job who seems to echo verse 4, but then takes a very different turn:
‘What is mankind that you make so much of them,
that you give them so much attention,
18 that you examine them every morning
and test them every moment?
19 Will you never look away from me,
or let me alone even for an instant?
20 If I have sinned, what have I done to you,
you who see everything we do?
Why have you made me your target?
Have I become a burden to you?
21 Why do you not pardon my offences
and forgive my sins?
For I shall soon lie down in the dust;
you will search for me, but I shall be no more.’ Job7:17-21
This psalm throws up the injustices of the world and the sinfulness of humankind. Our position may be that of the economically and socially secure, but there are many who would more readily associate with Job than with Psalm 8.
Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome, was writing to those who were feeling oppressed and suffering injustice in a thoroughly pagan city. As he seeks to encourage and support them, he points to the bigger picture and the fact that the whole of creation is groaning as a result of the decision of humankind to seek to be like God, and the consequent judgment of God. He looks forward to the consummation of God’s purposes through this painful birth process so that the whole of creation will be redeemed, including those who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in this context that the often misquoted ‘we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ (Romans 8:28) is said to encourage these Christians. This is not a glib ‘Everything will be alright in the end; and if it’s not alright it’s not the end,’ but an encouragement to see that through the groaning of creation – the effects of which were coming very close to home and do come close to home – God is working out salvation and redemption. The whole of creation will be freed from the bondage to decay. It is in the light of this hope that the Christian community in Rome and the Christian community down through the ages could and can worship God our Father.
So whilst Psalm 8 may appear to be for those for whom life is working out just fine, it is actually a psalm of orientation and wonder towards the God who brought all things into being; who is Lord over all; the God who is so great as to create the multiplicity of universes and yet invests so tremendously in humankind and gives them such a position of responsibility. God is majestic and awesome whatever our circumstances. ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’ should be our first response. We believe that God has indeed demonstrated his love for those he created in sending Jesus to be the saviour, the sin-bearer, the redeemer. As we begin our look at these songs of life, this psalm orients us as we worship God, because these verses apply whatever our situation.